Fear Itself: Unless We Observe and Surrender Our Small, Daily Anxieties, We Won't Recognize the Really Big Fears, in All Their Disguises, That Control Our Politics, Our Denominations, Our Bank Accounts, and the World's Future

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Fear has such control over most live and most groups because it is hardly ever recognized as such. It is normally thought of as prudent concern, common sense, deserved anger, or another "bottom line." The pattern is classic: Satan must be disguised as an "angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14). It is the only way that evil can gain control over us, since we all seek a positive self-image, and no one wants to think of themselves as paranoid, cowardly, or even slightly fearful--these do not fit the American, Christian, or successful self-image.

It is very telling that exorcisms, which are an "embarrassingly" large part of Jesus" ministry, often have to do with forcing the demons to name themselves correctly, or to name themselves at all. Much of the work of spiritual growth has to do with "Saying ... to those in darkness, 'Show yourself'" (Isaiah 49:9). Frankly, if one does not have a developed tolerance for truth-telling and humility about one's real motives, this hardly ever happens. We remain largely fear-based, while thinking of ourselves as very moral. But Jesus warns against fear more than he warns against anything else, with the possible exception of hypocrisy. Fear is useless, he says (Mark 5:36). It distorts all perception.

Fear, of course, is almost always a fear of losing something. If one is not practiced in losing and letting go, the art of "releasement," you can be pretty sure that your entire life will be controlled by fear. But most of our fears are so petty--and so habitual--that few of us notice what it is that we're afraid of losing. In a secular culture like ours, you can pretty well presume that some form of fear is the major and controlling "demon" of almost all individuals and groups: There is no one to release to. There is no reason to release, and every motivation to hold on, harbor, and hoard.

Even believers have used the scriptures and the sacraments to cover all their fears, leaving almost no way out of their vicious circle. They even fearfully "love" God, so there is almost no way that fear can be exposed for the blindness that it is. It has become religion itself.

Of course, we can see this much easier today in Islam, or any religion other than our own. They are clearly afraid. Afraid of losing their pride as Arabs, afraid of losing the boundaries of Israel, afraid of losing control and power in any area where they have it.

Of course, that is our problem in the West as well. We tend to be control freaks, which is the price you always pay for being in control. The more you are on top, the more you have to protect, the more you have to lose, the more you are unpracticed in letting go--the more fear-based you tend to be. It is a dramatic and surprising irony.

Thus wealthy people, climbing people, "conservative" people in general are precisely those who have a lot to conserve. By definition, they must be on guard, circumspect, suspicious, wary, with insurance policies at every level. No surprises allowed. One gradually slips into this entire stance toward life precisely through the process of climbing, competing, succeeding, and saving. Those on top literally have everything to lose. I can see why St. Francis told us not to "own" anything, even our own prayer book! He said that once we owned anything, we would say to the brothers "Bring me my prayer book!" or "Who took my prayer book?" You can either say Francis was utterly naive or he was a religious and societal genius.

I have observed in myself, I am ashamed to say, that people I do not "like" are usually people that I am somehow afraid of, but in very subtle ways, and sometimes even understandable ways. I am afraid they will control the conversation, they will use up hours of my time, they will be needy or high maintenance, they will express neurotic or stupid opinions, they will want more of me than I want to give, etc. These all might be legitimate reasons for not diving into a long-term relationship with the person, but I have also had to admit that in each ease I am afraid of losing something--usually my autonomy and my self-determination, if just for the next 10 minutes. …